Fiona gripped the mug between her hands and took a sip of the stale coffee. The diner was quiet for a Saturday, but she didn’t mind. Given the circumstances, silence was a friend.
Twenty-eight years old. What a waste. But at least he would finally find peace. Maybe he knew it was coming. Fiona never quite understood what drove Jack to enlist, never asked him about it, but now she wondered if he’d just been looking for a way out. Not a way out of his life, but a way out of this world. ‘Self-destructive behavior’. That’s how his middle school counselor had put it.
He’s a smart kid but he’s lashing out. He wants attention. What kind of time do you spend together as a family?
Ha. Family time. Good one, doc. Here was a family with a father whose only check came from disability and whose only doses of Jack came from a bottle. Family time? What was she supposed to say? The only time they spent together was in the living room cleaning up after Jack’s father had passed out on the couch.
She couldn’t blame him for wanting out, just as she couldn’t blame him for his occasional angry outbursts that had once put a hole through the kitchen drywall and once gotten him suspended for nearly hospitalizing a classmate. And if she couldn’t blame him she might as well stand by him, as any good Mom would. Still, it had become tiresome over time. When Jack finally declared on his nineteenth birthday that he wanted to sign up to serve his country, she’d almost been relieved. Perhaps he’d finally find his calling.
Fiona’s relationship with Jack had been complicated. Theirs was the connection shared between survivors of the same disaster, not that of a typical mother and son. Fiona blamed neither of them. Jack had been fiercely independent and impossible to control. That was just his nature. Maybe if Fiona had found a job closer to the house, maybe if she’d spent a little more time helping the boy with his homework, maybe if she’s kicked James out early on… The what ifs were like needles in her mind, pricking away until a numbness took over. Fiona shrugged it all away with another sip of burnt coffee and heard the first rumble of an approaching thunderstorm.
“You just havin’ the coffee?” A waitress asked.
“Yeah, just the coffee.”
Outside on the sidewalk, two women with umbrellas trudged down the street with a black literature cart. Fiona watched with distilled interest as they stopped at a corner and began filling its shelves with small religious booklets and magazines. A sign at the top asked: Why so much suffering?
There had been a time, many years ago, when Fiona’s curiosity might have been piqued enough to approach the women and hear their spiel. But the years had weathered her. She’d buried two sons and there were no tears left. Religious inquiries were somewhere with love and joy and the rest of the gamut of normal human emotion, hidden below the deepest callouses of Fiona’s heart.
In any case, there was nothing she could imagine them saying that wouldn’t simply be some mindless variation of the drivel the minister had just spewed at Jack’s funeral. “God has a plan for us all.” “He’s in a better place.” “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” How did that guy know, anyway? Had God told him? Did he even believe any of it, or was it just part of his contract? Who could be sure of any of it? Fiona scoffed and turned her attention away back to the heavy, stained mug in her hands.
The truth was, people came and people went, and that was that, and there was no meaning or reason in any of it as far as Fiona was concerned. She’d been through enough loss, and sorrow was a weight she preferred not to lug around. People made decisions and decisions brought consequences. It wasn’t her fault that Jack had been so angry and it wasn’t her fault that his father was a drunk. And anyway she’d done her job by divorcing the man and moving as far away as possible once she’d discovered Jack’s bruises. The world was just a bad place sometimes. If there was a God or a heaven or a hell, well...
So be it.
The little girl sat quietly between them, her gaze transfixed on the window and the endless stretch of clouds beyond. She’d gone to the lavatory twice and had motioned for a cup of water, but otherwise she’d remained completely silent. Even the faint whispering to herself had stopped. Naomi tried to convince herself that they’d made the right decision. There’d been one brief moment where they’d shared a glance, but she’d seen no signs that Feifei even knew where she was or what was happening. At least she seems to be a good kid, Naomi reminded herself. Not just a kid. Our kid. Our Feifei. This is our daughter. It was still hard to believe, and Naomi found herself smiling. She thought of their friends back home, many of whom had started families years ago.
It’s so strange that first day when you bring them home from the hospital, someone had said. You check in with two people and you leave with three! Right there, in your arms is this tiny, precious human being, and it’s your job to take care of it. It’s simply miraculous!
Naomi smiled again, broader this time, and Charlie caught it. He relaxed a little, sinking into the seat and smiling back. He reached over and stroked Feifei’s long black hair. She didn’t pull away, but didn’t seem to acknowledge the gesture either. Then, leaning forward, Charlie asked her in a sing song tone, “Ni zhidao women qu nali ma?”
Feifei slowly raised her moon shaped faced towards his, her dark, clear eyes peering at him curiously. She shook her head. Naomi gasped.
“What was that? What did you just say to her?” Naomi asked.
“I–I asked if she knows where we’re going... I think. Chinese has these tones when you speak, and if you get them wrong the meaning could be different–“
“I think she understood you, Charlie! Can you ask something else?”
“Uh, ok. I can try... Um... Let me ask her name. Ni jiao shenme mingzi?” He cooed, the confidence in his voice buidling by degrees.
Feifei returned a blank stare.
“Ni ji sui le?” Charlie attempted.
“Ni cong nali lai?”
Feifei’s face slowly wrinkled into a frown as her eyes twinkled with tears.
“What’s happening? What did you do?” Naomi demanded. “I just asked where she’s from. What’s wrong with that?”
Feifei was crying now, her chest heaving with agonized sobs that were beginning to draw stares from other passengers. She pulled up her balled chubby fists to her eyes as a grey-haired stewardess swept to the side of their aisle.
“Anythin’ I can help with here?” The woman asked with a southern drawl.
“Uh, maybe a cup of juice?” Charlie suggested. The woman nodded with a pitying stare and shuffled to the back of the plane.
“What do we do?” Charlie whispered to his wife.
“Oh for goodness’ sake,” Naomi snapped. She leaned over to unbuckle Feifei’s belt and cradled the small girl in her arms, rocking her gently. “It’s ok, baby. You’re ok. I’m here.”
Naomi glanced at Charlie. “What?” She asked.
“I knew it,” he said.
“I knew you’d be a natural.”
Adrina’s funeral was held in a stuffy community church two blocks from her Detroit apartment. None of her family were members so there’d been no discount for the services. Adrina’s mother, Cindy, decided on the simplest option available; there would be no burial in the church cemetery, no open casket, no choir. Even the flowers were prepared by Cindy herself: a single white basket stuffed with azaleas and white roses–Adrina’s favorites.
The only other adornment on the old wooden stage was an easel displaying a poster board plastered with pictures from Adrina’s younger years that Cindy had prepared tearfully over the course of three sleepless nights. Her apartment in Dearborn was still littered with old photos of her only daughter, and she dreaded having to return home and clean it all up. The nightmare would continue.
Cindy closed her eyes and tried to focus on the words of the reverend. At six foot four and well over three hundred pounds, Reverend Greene movements seemed to occupy the entire space between the stage and the ceiling. His voice boomed over the pews. He spoke of Adrina being at the Lord’s side and enjoying a life free of pain and suffering in a ‘heavenly abode’. His puffy flowing garment swayed about his thick body as he extolled the virtues of repentance and living a good Christian life and going to church and being generous with the Lord’s representatives. His gaze settled on Cindy. The ceremony wrapped to a close and a thin line of family and friends filed by to pay their condolences and cry over the poster.
Cindy thanked them and accepted hugs and kisses and flowers but ached for it all to be over. Corey was the last in line, dressed in a loose-fitting silk shirt and slacks. He slipped into the bench next to Cindy and leaned forward, placing his head in his hands. They wept silently together for a few moments as the crowd thinned out.
“I can’t believe she’s gone,” Cindy said, mopping her face with a crumbling wad of tissues. “I can’t believe it. She was just a child.”
Corey consoled her as best he could, but there were no words. It had been so sudden, so unexpected. Remembering that their last interaction had been a fight didn’t help. “I know, I know. Crazy. Just crazy.” was all he could manage.
The official toxicology report had determined that Adrina’s death was caused by an overdose of acetaminophin, a potent chemical which had quickly overwhelmed her already weakened liver. According to the coroner, it was likely a careless mistake. He presumed that Adrina had failed to notice the warning label on the bottle informing her that the dosage was twice as potent as her previous medication. Apart from the headache itself, it would have been a painless death.
Reverend Greene paid his respects quietly. It was clear he hadn’t known Adrina personally. His words on and off the platform had been strong yet vacuous. Cindy imagined that he’d done this performance many times before. The emotions were simulated, the words hollow. And when his consolation had finished, he politely reminded them that the evening choir practice would begin in roughly forty minutes, and that they were welcome to stay, but the flowers and poster board would have to be moved. Cindy nodded, collected the items in her arms, and hobbled out the front doors.
Corey slipped into a black hoodie as they waited on the front steps of the dilapidated chapel. Weeds grew in the sidewalk and the garbage hadn’t yet been collected. With October just around the corner there was a chill in the air, but Cindy didn’t seem to notice.
“You... You wanna get something to eat?” Corey asked, struggling to make conversation as he fumbled in his pockets for a lighter and a cigarette. Cindy slowly shook her head.
“You think we’ll ever see her again?” She asked. Corey froze.
“You mean, like, heaven or something?”
“Yeah, I guess like heaven.”
“Aw... I dunno. I guess it’s good to have some kind of faith, but...”
“You’re not sure.”
Corey lit his cigarette and gave Cindy a long look. “No, I guess I’m not.”
Charlie and Naomi lived at the end of a cul-de-sac in a modest middle-class community just outside of Portland, Oregon. They’d left their home only six days before but their brief stay abroad had already made things once familiar and everyday seem strange and foreign. The trees and rows of telephone polls and red school buses seemed strange and out of place. It was a cloudy Tuesday and the sky was beginning to leak cold, heavy droplets.
Feifei had been characteristically quiet since their Airbus A380 settled onto the tarmac that grey morning. Her curious eyes had noted each and every detail from her new surroundings, but there were no expressions, no reactions.
“This is your new home, Feifei,” Naomi said a dozen times from the airport to the house.
“There’s an oak tree. And that’s a red house. Can you see it? Can you say red, Feifei?”
Feifei kept silent, but follwed the Naomi’s gestures, locating the things being pointed at as they swept by.
“You should try to study a little Mandarin,” Charlie suggested. “I don’t think she can understand any English.”
Naomi let out an almost inaudible huff. “Well she’ll have to learn sooner or later. No one here speaks Chinese.”
“I could teach you a few words, if you want–“
“No thanks. I’m no good with languages, and anyway we need to help her adapt to this new life. I’ve read up on this a lot, Charlie, and most of the experts advocate getting the child into a steady routine as soon as possible, introducing them to all the elements of their new life. That includes language.”
“Maybe. But then again, she may have needs that are different than other children.”
Naomi looked out her passenger window to the approaching wall of grey clouds. “It better clear up soon. I need some fresh air today. I wanted to take her to the park.”
They spent the remaining twenty minutes in silence as the raindrops thickened and pelted their small sedan.
There was nothing remarkable about Harold’s funeral service. Someone had remembered him once mentioning that he wanted nothing extravagant for his ceremony. Just a few friends, and keep it out of the chapel! In sticking to his wishes, only a few of the Cambridge faculty attended, along with a handful of graduates and current alumni, and two of his closest colleagues. Some were suspected to have shown up more out of sympathy that respect. Rumor had it that Harold’s heart attack had been trigged by his discovery that his award had been cancelled.
Of course, Harold had stipulated that his funeral would be strictly non-religious. Four of his closest associates said a few parting words. There were some tears. Someone played a recording of Amazing Grace. The entire affair lasted no longer than twenty-three minutes. Had Harold been in attendance, he would’ve been touched most by the words shared by John Clevitt, the friend in whose arms he had passed away. In a short yet eloquent speech, John had referred to Harold as ‘a dear friend, an unending inspiration, and someone I would be ashamed to ever forget.’
A written will in the locked desk of his study would later reveal that Harold had wished to be buried near Cambridge soil, but due to a property dispute with the city council and zoning concerns, the request was never granted. Without any surviving family to speak of, the urn that held his remains was stored on school grounds, though within a year the urn had been mistaken for trash and accidentally disposed of by a careless school janitor. When the error was later discovered some years later, a small bronze plaque was hung in his honor in the university’s library. It read:
In Respectful Memory of Harold Dawson, Ph.D
For His Significant Achievements
And that was that.
“You think she’s tired?” Charlie asked as he hauled their bags into the house, feeling the weight of exhaustion himself. He could barely find the strength to think about anything but a hot shower and the cool sheets of a familiar bed.
“Doesn’t seem like it,” Naomi said. “She’s probably starving, though. She only had those peanuts and a bit of rice on the flight.” Naomi set the girl down in the kitchen and began scrounging in the pantry for the makings of a quick meal. Feifei stood on the linoleum floor, watching Naomi as she reached for cans and pots and utensils. Charlie joined them a few minutes later, having just started a load of laundry.
“Hey there little girl,” he said, kneeling next to Feifei. “You wanna see your new house?”
Feifei stared back blankly.
“Sorry, Daddy doesn’t know how to say that in Chinese. Let’s go take the grand tour, ok?” He swept his daughter up in his arms and began to march around the house, rocking her playfully as he went.
“We’ll start with my personal favorite: the living room! Yeah, this is where we can watch TV, or play some games, or just relax on a rainy day like today. This is also where we usually do our family worship on Thursdays. That one’s Daddy’s chair, and that’s where Mommy likes to read her books.”
Charlie spun on his heel and made mechanical robot buzzing and whirring sounds. “And over here is the dining room, this is where we get our grub on. In just a few minutes we can have our first meal together as a... as a... a family.” Charlie paused, surprised by the sudden wave of emotions forcing itself upon him. He took a breath and cleared the knot from his throat. Feifei stared into his glossy eyes curiously.
“That’s right, Feifei. You’re part of our family now. And we are gonna love you so much. And you’re gonna have such a good life here with me and Mommy, you got that?”
Naomi turned from the stove to watch her husband. Their eyes met and no one spoke.
“Hey, how ‘bout we go check out your room, ok Feifei? Would you like that?” Charlie asked, moving towards the hallway. She wrapped her puffy arms around his neck and gently set her warm, damp head against his..
Charlie held her with one arm as he swung the door open with the other and flipped on the lights. It still smelled slightly of the pink latex paint they’d lathered onto the small children’s bookshelf, but Feifei didn’t seem to notice. Colorful balloons, half-deflated, hung from the bedposts and the shelves. Her name was written on large sheets of construction paper taped to the wall, both in English and Chinese characters. For the first time, Charlie saw the inklings of a smile as Feifei took in her surroundings.
Naomi and Charlie lived simply. Naomi had regular pioneered since her graduation from high school, so Charlie’s small window-washing business had been their only source of income. The house had just two bedrooms, so Feifei’s room would double as Charlie’s office. One half was filled with little girl’s toys, the other with business files and theocratic publications. Charlie didn’t mind sharing the space, since it would mean spending more time with his new daughter.
Charlie set the girl down and let her explore the room. Many of the items had belonged to friends from the local congregation. There’d been so much support since they’d announced their decision to adopt, and within months they’d had their hands full with second hand clothing, toys, blankets, and even a high-end carseat and stroller. Feifei roved thoughtfully around the room, exploring the low shelves and colorful toy bins with her small, stubby fingers.
And then she froze.
Feifei’s eyes had fixed on a shelf across the room, where Charlie kept his books and papers. Eyes widening, her arm shot into the air, pointing furiously to the top shelf.
“Wo xiang kankan neige! Wo xiang kankan!” She suddenly yelled. The sound of her voice nearly put Charlie on his back. Dumbfounded, he struggled to piece the meaning together in his mind. The words came fast, but he knew she was asking to see something. But what?
Lifting Feifei up, he opened the glass cabinet door and let her frantic hands grasp freely. Her fingers moved wildly, chubby little pink spiders scrawling along the books’ spines. Moments later Naomi appeared in the door, her stupefied look matching that of Charlie’s.
“Was that her? Did she say something?”
“Yeah, she did, she wanted to see something on this shelf, I think.”
“On that shelf?” Naomi said with wonder, glancing at the painted bookcase on the other end of the room. It nearly overflowed with toys and brightly-colored kids’ books. What could she possibly be drawn to here?
Feifei’s fingers finally found purchase on the edge of a book and she yanked it free. Learning from the Great Teacher fell to floor and Feifei reached for it with flailing arms. When Charlie put her down she scooped it up immediately, flipping it open and staring at its pages with wide, exuberant eyes.
“What’s gotten into her, Charlie?” Naomi asked cautiously.
“I could be wrong, but... I think she may know this book...” Charlie said.
“But how? That can’t be possible...”
Charlie knelt on the ground next to the girl and the book and softly asked, “Ni zhidao zhege shu ma?” Do you know this book?
Looking up with a great big smile and tears in her eyes, Feifei nodded.